Buying into North Korea: Practices and Implications for Foreign Investment into the DPRK
With North Korea becoming increasingly politically isolated, there are few channels through which the international community can remain engaged. Despite the distaste most have for Pyongyang politics, more than 24 million people living under Kim Jong-il need assistance from the outside world. While providing this assistance, we have long hoped to find a mechanism to encourage opening up and engagement with the international community.
In the 15 years since North Korea suffered massive famine in the mid-1990s, the United States and the international community have supplied assistance to the DPRK without significantly advancing denuclearization, nonproliferation, or human rights goals with sanctions; the North has continued to threaten security and stability on the peninsula and in the region. For 10 years, under the leadership of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea spearheaded engagement efforts with the hope that Aesop’s proverbial sunshine would lead the North to open up its borders and engage. ROK assistance became more conditional under President Lee Myung-bak, and now, in the aftermath of the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, even Seoul has cut off most links with Pyongyang
There is little evidence, despite the North’s occasional and partial economic reform efforts, that Pyongyang sees value in fully engaging the international community. Diplomatic historian James Person sees little hope that engagement can convince the regime to open; he points to “the largest bailout in world history”—the communist aid to North Korea after its liberation from Japan and destruction during the Korean War—as the first example of failure to engage North Korea.Despite the massive reconstruction assistance spearheaded by Moscow, North Korea not only rebuked invitations to join the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECOM); it also became a founding leader of the nonaligned movement.
If not through official channels, then how can we reach North Koreans? We hoped that aid workers in North Korea would broaden our understanding of the people, society, and politics while helping shape North Koreans’ perceptions of the outside world and providing information to North Korean authorities and citizens that they would otherwise not be privy to. Unfortunately, DPRK authorities have been very effective at limiting the contact—and therefore impact—that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have had in-country, and the authorities have gone so far as to shut down aid operations and ask foreign workers to leave the country when Pyongyang felt that their presence might be a threat to regime stability. Despite tensions on the peninsula, it is beneficial to all parties for the international community to maintain contact with Pyongyang; development in North Korea will not only ease humanitarian concerns but will also allow Pyongyang to be more politically flexible, making it more likely that we can reengage in talks on peninsular and regional issues.